The challenges are significant, though not unusual, for Florida Memorial University. Like many historically black colleges, the school in Miami Gardens is struggling with dwindling enrollment and financial instability.
But what is unusual: For the first time in its 135 years of existence, a woman will lead Florida Memorial.
Roslyn Clark Artis received a rousing welcome Tuesday from faculty members, students and alumni during the formal announcement of her hiring. The crowd of more than 100 gave her a standing ovation when when she took the stage at the school’s Lou Rawls Center for the Performing Arts.
They rose again when she concluded her speech, which was heavy on optimism — and football metaphors.
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Faculty members, she said, were the offense, guiding students through their hands-on interaction. Staff members were the defense, maintaining the campus and keeping things running smoothly. And the university’s in-progress strategic plan was the essential “playbook” for moving forward.
“We’re gonna win, and we’re gonna keep on winning,” Artis declared. “Because we’re a good team, because we’re a well-rounded team.”
Last month, another historically black college, Florida A&M University, also selected its first-ever female president, Elmira Mangum.
Artis is an attorney and former provost at Mountain State University in West Virginia. She claimed Florida Memorial’s top job after what amounted to a six-month audition. The university in June selected Artis as its interim president — something typically reserved for temporary presidents who are already on staff. But Artis was an outside hire specifically brought in for the interim post.
Artis said she believed Florida Memorial’s board of trustees was at first reluctant to deliver a long-term commitment to a new leader. The university has struggled with turnover in the president’s office. The previous president, Henry Lewis III, lasted less than a year. His predecessor, Karl S. Wright, led the school for two years before leaving abruptly in 2009.
The administrative turmoil came at a time that was already difficult for historically black colleges. The schools were born during the age of segregation, but black students now have a multitude of options when it comes to choosing a college. The years of shrinking enrollment have hit the colleges hard — particularly when black colleges often have a small financial endowment to begin with.
At Florida Memorial, which is South Florida’s only historically black college, the school’s 2012 enrollment of 1,579 represents a 20 percent drop from 2000.
Even the elite black colleges, such as Howard University, are facing headwinds. Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Howard’s credit rating in September.
The chairman of Florida Memorial’s board, Charles George, said the university is at a “crossroads.” In choosing Artis, George said he was impressed by her vision and tenacity. At 43 years old, Artis is young by university president standards.
“She has some get up and go,” George said. The board’s vote to hire Artis, which took place Monday, was unanimous.
During her six months as interim president, Artis said she inherited a $3 million budget deficit. Through salary freezes, about a dozen layoffs and some other belt-tightening (such as a suspension of matching 401(k) contributions), Artis said the deficit was reduced to $1 million.
Though some library staffers were eliminated, Artis said her efforts to cut costs focused on high-level administrators. For example, a group of vice presidents collectively known as the “President’s Cabinet” was reduced from six to four positions.
“We have not permitted any nonessential travel, and that includes my office,” Artis said. “We’re trying to set the example from the top.”
Artis’ tenure at Mountain State was not without controversy. The university closed in 2012 after a series of embarrassing setbacks — first, the nursing program lost its accreditation, and then the entire college. West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette newspaper said Mountain State was “the first institution in West Virginia history to have its accreditation revoked for major leadership, integrity and program issues.”
Some students sued the school, and a former sociology professor filed a lawsuit that alleged Artis was part of an administrative cover-up: faculty members, the suit claimed, were ordered not to tell students about the accreditation problems.
Prior to Tuesday’s announcement event, Florida Memorial University refused to reveal who its new president would be. After the event, Artis did not return a call to her cellphone. Artis also did not respond to a text message asking about Mountain State’s closure.
Florida Memorial trustee Marc Henderson said he did not remember Mountain State being “a major issue” during the selection process.
“Old history is just that, old history,” Henderson said.
Freshman science major Markisha Grant said she has been impressed with Artis during the past six months. The university added computers to student dorms, upgraded the computers in the library, and is expanding the science building, she said.
When Artis arrived, Grant said, “everything changed, and it was all for the better.”